During our young days, we had an iron box – Theppu Petti – heated by burning coconut shells to embers. The iron box was not made of iron, but brass, weighing over five kilograms. It had a cover over a hollow cavity with holes on either side, looking more like our eyes. These eye-lets acted as air-vents to keep the embers glowing.
A metallic flap attached at the back covered the cavity. On top of the cover was a teak handle, hand-carved to fit the operator’s hand. The ‘Delta’ shaped base, called the sole, facilitated easy gliding of the Theppu Petti over the cloth under it. The sole was heated to about 200°C by the burning embers.
Theppu Petti is the predecessor to the modern electric steam iron. The electric iron was invented in 1882 by New Yorker Henry W Seely. His iron weighed almost seven kilograms and took a long time to warm up. Irons gradually became smaller until they resembled the type we have in our homes today.
The iron box did its job of pressing a piece of cloth to remove creases using a combination of a hard surface, and heat and pressure that pressed on the fibres of the clothes, stretching and flattening them.
Using a Theppu Petti to iron a piece of cloth, the operation commenced with placing the monstrous looking object on a metallic ring on the table. The metallic ring protected the table from getting burnt. The ironing table back then was nowhere akin to the modern ironing boards, but was a multi-purpose large table (mostly the dining or study table) covered with an old blanket and a bed sheet.
Four or five coconut shell-halves were placed in the hollow cavity of the Theppu Petti and burnt to embers, which took about 15 minutes. These embers emitted constant heat for a long time and maintained a near constant temperature. Kerala households had a large stock of coconut shells and burning them in the iron box were their primary use. Some used charcoal in place of the coconut shells.
When we were young, our father ironed our clothes until our eldest brother turned ten. Then he took over the operation and did the job with panache. When our youngest brother turned ten, the mantle was passed on to him and he became such an expert that he would put any professional cleaner to shame. Now it is a ritual for him on Sundays to collect the white shirts and black pants of my elder brother, an advocate, and press the entire stock for a week. He presses all my clothes while I was home and also for the entire household.
തേപ്പ് – Theppu is a modern Malayalam word which means ‘ironed’. As slang, it refers to a girl who dumps their lover when they see a better prospect. The word, though sexist, finds its way into modern Malayalam movies and social-media trolls.
While serving with the Indian Army in Maharashtra, a Priest from our Syrian Orthodox church visited me. His wife hailed from our village and her family was well known to ours. I invited him for lunch and after that took him to the shopping centre at the Cantonment as he wanted a heavy electric iron box to press his long white cassock. He couldn’t find a heavy iron box in the market as the modern one’s were light. He presumed that the Cantonment’s shopping centre would have it as the soldiers always had to press their thick uniforms.
During my next visit home, I narrated the incident to Amma and she passed her characteristic sly smile, which meant there was more to it. I prodded her and she reminisced the days of 1957 when she was just married and they moved into a small rented one-room house next to the school where Amma was teaching.
They hardly had any utensils, leave alone an iron box, which was the last priority. My Dad taught at the school in town and had to bus about 12 kilometer either way, thus had to leave early. The first Sunday, he ironed the clothes required for my mother and him using an iron box which he borrowed from the home of a senior revenue official who lived across the street. The next Sunday his request for the iron box was turned down claiming that it was under repair. Next evening my father walked in with an iron box and that today lies in the attic of our ancestral house.
“What is the connection with this old iron box and the Priest,” I asked.
Amma took a long deep breath and said “This Priest is married to the daughter of that revenue official.“